2016 Carolina Panthers Preview: Training camp goals

Jim Dedmon—
May 24

CAMP CALENDAR: Full squad reports July 27; first practice July 28; camp breaks Aug. 16.TRAINING CAMP GOALSFigure out cornerback situation: The Panthers hope their latest positional makeover becomes a foundation for the future. Many around the league are still perplexed that general manager Dave Gettleman let Pro-Bowl corner Josh Norman walk, but Carolina is confident they’ll survive the upcoming growing pains. Bene’ Benwikere, who is coming off a broken leg, has starting experience, and the front office thinks second-round pick James Bradberry could turn into a steal. What’s perhaps more puzzling is how thePanthers will deal with speedy, smaller players like Saints slot man Brandin Cooks when they go into a nickel defense.Stay healthy: A goal for all 32 teams, this one is on the Panthers’ wish list because of what happened last summer. They somehow overcame a season-ending injury to top wideout Kelvin Benjamin, but they may not be able to do it again if something happens to one of their other stars.UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSISQUARTERBACKSStarter: Cam Newton. Backups: Derek Anderson, Joe Webb.Listing all of Newton’s 2015 accomplishments would take a while, so here are just a couple: He led the NFL with 45 total touchdowns, becoming the first player with at least 30 passing touchdowns (35) and 10 rushing touchdowns (10) in a single season. But he came back down to earth in the Super Bowl, both on the field and in his poorly handled post-game press conference. When needed, Anderson has proven to be a solid backup. Webb, who has turned into a special teams ace, hasn’t attempted a pass in a regular-season game since 2011.RUNNING BACKSSarters: Jonathan Stewart, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups: Cameron Artis-Payne, Brandon Wegher, Fozzy Whittaker, Jalen Simmons, Devon Johnson.Despite missing the final three games of the regular season, Stewart’s 242 attempts in 2015 were a career best, and his seven total touchdowns were his most since 2009. ThePanthers’ offense functions best when he’s the workhorse, complemented by Whittaker, Artis-Payne and Tolbert. Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Marshall, could be groomed to one day take over for Tolbert.TIGHT ENDSStarter: Greg Olsen. Backups: Ed Dickson, Scott Simonson, Beau Sandland, Braxton Deaver, Marcus Lucas.Olsen led the Panthers in receptions (77) and receiving yards (1,104) last year, becoming just the seventh tight end in NFL history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Dickson has been OK during his two years in Charlotte, but the Panthers are hoping to develop a guy like Sandland or Deaver into more of a pass-catching threat.WIDE RECEIVERSStarters: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess. Backups: Brenton Bersin, Philly Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Stephen Hill, Kevin Norwood, Damiere Byrd, LaRon Byrd, Avius Capers, Keyarris Garrett, Cobi Hamilton, Tobais Palmer, Miles Shuler.When Benjamin went down with a torn ACL last summer, most assumed the season was over. The Panthers proved doubters wrong, and now they get Benjamin back. After a slow start to his rookie year, Funchess started showing Benjamin-esque promise and could be in for a bigger second season. Ginn destroyed his career high with 10 touchdown catches, doubling his total from his 2013 season in Carolina. Assuming Ginn isn’t able to replicate his double-digit scoring output, the Panthers hope Brown continues his improvement through a third season. They’ll also give one more chance to former Jets second-round pick Hill, who like Benjamin, tore his ACL in last year’s camp.OFFENSIVE LINEMENStarters: LT Michael Oher, LG Trai Turner, C Ryan Kalil, RG Andrew Norwell, RT Mike Remmers. Backups: C/G Gino Gradkowski, C Matt Masifilo, G Reese Dismukes, G Tyler Larsen, G David Yankey, G Chris Scott, T Daryl Williams, T David Foucault, T Donald Hawkins, T Jordan Rigsbee.After a disastrous season in Tennessee, Oher resurrected his career by solidifying Newton’s blind side. But the strength of the Panthers’ line is in the middle. Sandwiched between mean and talented second-year guards Turner and Norwell, Kalil made a fifth Pro Bowl. Remmers held off Williams at right tackle last year, but Remmers’ job won’t be so secure after his Super Bowl struggles. The Panthers needed to find a backup center this offseason, so they signed Gradowski, who can play both center and guard.DEFENSIVE LINEMENStarters: DLE Charles Johnson, DLT Star Lotulelei, DRT Kawann Short, DRE Kony Ealy. Backups: DE Mario Addison, DE Rakim Cox, DE Ryan Delaire, DE Wes Horton, DE Arthur Miley, DE Larry Webster, DT Chas Alecxih, DT Vernon Butler, DT Eric Crume, DT Paul Soliai, DT Robert Thomas, DT Kyle Love.The Panthers like to slide ends like Ealy into the middle, but they may opt to keep him mostly on the outside now. Johnson, Addison and the young guys should combine for a solid pass rush, but Ealy has the highest ceiling. Short destroyed a franchise record for sacks by a defensive tackle with 11.0 in 2015, tied for the most in the NFL. Lotulelei wasn’t as prolific, but his role is more about taking up space than racking up stats. Soliai, who fell out of favor in Atlanta, should be a good backup, and the Panthers were thrilled about what they saw in spring workouts from Butler, their first-round pick.LINEBACKERSStarters: WLB Thomas Davis, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Shaq Thompson. Backups: Ben Jacobs, A.J. Klein, David Mayo, Jared Barber, Brian Blechen, Jeremy Cash, Jared Norris.There isn’t a whole lot to say about Kuechly and Davis that isn’t already known. Despite missing three games in 2015, Kuechly set a career high with six interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns in the postseason while playing with a sore shoulder that required offseason surgery. In Davis’ 10th season, he made his first Pro Bowl with career bests of 5.5 sacks and four interceptions. As the No. 3 linebacker on a unit that mostly plays nickel, Thompson saw just one-third of the possible defensive snaps as a rookie. But he flashed all sorts of potential, and along with Klein and Mayo, the Panthers have plenty of depth.DEFENSIVE BACKSStarters: LCB Bene’ Benwikere, RCB James Bradberry, SS Kurt Coleman, FS Tre Boston. Backups: CB Robert McClain, CB Teddy Williams, CB Lou Young, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Zack Sanchez, CB Daryl Worley, S Marcus Ball, S Travell Dixon, S Trenton Robinson, S Colin Jones, S Dean Marlowe.The Panthers shocked the league when they rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag in April, setting up a cornerback makeover. They used three straight picks on the position in the draft, and Bradberry spent most of the spring at a starting spot. The Panthers still plan to move Benwikere from No. 1 nickel to a full-time role on the outside, but he may be needed in the slot if Sanchez isn’t ready as a rookie. Safety is a bit thin, too. Coleman was a pleasant surprise last year, and Boston has starting experience, but the secondary could be a weak spot.SPECIAL TEAMSK Graham Gano, P Mike Scifres, P Swayze Waters, KOR Fozzy Whittaker, PR Ted Ginn, LS J.J. Jansen.What was a sometimes disastrous unit in 2014 improved at least a bit last year. The biggest problem for Gano wasn’t accuracy, but that four of his six missed field goals were blocked. The Panthers let Brad Nortman take more money as a free agent in Jacksonville, so the punter position will be a question mark in camp. Scifres spent the last 13 seasons with San Diego, so he has a leg up on Waters, who has never punted in a regular-season game. Ginn still has juice as a punt returner, but Whittaker doesn’t provide much on kickoffs.